Shooting the Past

Shooting the Past is a television drama for the BBC broadcast in 1999 written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff.

Shooting the Past delves into a world quite separate from modern life, and demonstrates that the preservation of the past, in order to tell the extraordinary stories of the lives of ordinary people, can be astonishingly powerful and revealing. An American company buys the building in which the Fallon Photo Library is kept, planning a complete remodeling and modernisation to turn it into a business school. The company president, Christopher Anderson, had informed one of the members of staff, Oswald, but Oswald fails to pass on the news. On their arrival, having expected the library of ten million photographs to have been disposed of and the building evacuated, Anderson tell the staff that the majority of the collection must be destroyed if they cannot sell it. However, the staff members believe that the collection must be kept in its entirety, not broken up or sold to different buyers. As such, there is little interest. Marilyn manages to make a successful pitch to an advertising company, but as most of the collection is in black and white the potential sale falls through. To prove the value of their library, the group presents Anderson with intriguing stories put together by researching photos from all over the collection, including finally the colourful history of his own grandmother. The research has been conducted largely by Oswald. Finally convinced that the collection should be saved and kept whole, Anderson finds a buyer in America who will accept all ten million pictures..


“10 million pictures one story out of all this.” Marilyn

“Some challenge huh” Anderson

In the first episode the Marilyn tells Anderson one story which involved the entire collection. The story of a Jewish girl named Lilly. Met with hostility, Marilyn tells the story from pictures collected from Lilly’s father to Nazi photographers and street photography. Marilyn tells the narrative which adds value to the pictures. Alone these pictures are muddled; you would understand that it is of the same girl, yet the context isn’t all that obvious. The pictures Marilyn shows Anderson are from different parts of the collection, but they were pooled together into one narrative.

This drama, although fiction, is such a good representation of how images in such a large collection can be pulled together to make one piece of work. I have been using the same discipline across more than just the medium of photography, using the other material such as diaries and letters.

At the same time, the drama touches on dated archiving, or archiving without computers. Although this was written and produced in 1999, the principles still stand today and is in fact more prevalent with Web 2.0. Photography archives such as Getty Archives are expected to digitise its work for online viewing.

“I take it you’re computerized,” says Anderson. “It’s all in here,” replies Bates, tapping the database in his head.

This reminds me so much of Jinx, but it does mean that when the time comes that an archivist who knows the collection so well leaves, it then can become difficult for someone to pick up and understand the cataloguing and so on. It reminds us that some of these rich archives do belong to a dedicated group of people, like Jinx. Jinx is the glue who can pull the archive together to make narratives just like in Shooting the Past.


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